Pay the writers

The most challenging part of being a writer is the fact that there’s not a lot of money in it.

I wish I had a better answer. I wish I could wave my hand and fix capitalism so that the authors of my favorite novels could do things like eat and drive and pay the mortgage. I wish there was a more equal spread of author pay, instead of it being a depressing mirror of the rest of our society with a couple of billionaires at the top and the rest of us playing tiddlywinks with what’s left.

I should be used to it by now. I’m over here in the science fiction and fantasy genre, where the disparity is even more obvious. We have some absolutely wonderful, committed fans, but most genre authors I know can’t get by on book sales alone. They teach at universities, or manage robust Patreons, or keep their day jobs, or ghostwrite for more popular folks writing memoirs or nonfiction. Many more authors are forced out of doing work that would change the world simply because the the minimum wage in the United States hasn’t risen in over fifteen years. Our genre pro rate, currently .08 cents a word, is nothing compared to what I used to make as a newspaper journalist on staff in the early aughts.

Can you believe that, once upon a time, the proceeds from a short story could fund an author’s life for months? I sold four short stories last year, all of which together barely got us through a month’s groceries—before the baby was born. I honestly think that, if I did the math, it wouldn’t even cover the baby’s formula for 2019, so I’m not doing the math. It’s far too depressing.

As a society, we’ve gotten away from considering writing as valid paid work, and the arts in general. Writing (and painting, and dancing, and macrame) is ostensibly more “fun” and “aspirational” than, say, bookkeeping or marketing, so we don’t consider it culturally applicable. But how did we get to the point where having a writing career is inaccessible to almost everyone but the rich and the lucky and, like me, to those with tolerant and supportive spouses? We haven’t even touched the gender divide here—female writers, who take on more caretaking duties for elderly relatives and young children, tend to have even less time for writing than average. Can you imagine what affordable, decent childcare, higher salaries, and flex time could do for the number of women creating culture-changing works of art?

Why, in 2020, in the literal future, are we still considering art to be a luxury and not the cultural and human necessity we know it to be?

A few years ago, author N.K. Jemisin — whom I consider to be one of the most important writers of our time — put out a request on her Patreon. If she had more dedicated writing income through direct support, she said, she could drop her day job and concentrate on writing novels. Her fans responded—and the result was the groundbreaking The Fifth Season and its sequels, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky, which made Jemisin the very first writer in genre history to win three Hugos in a row for a single series. Would the same thing have happened if Jemisin had still been fighting with her day job?

How many other Jemisins are out there, unable to write and create and change the world because the pay is just too damned low?

What would happen if more writers were able to make writing their primary pursuit? What kind of books could be written? What kind of lives could be led?

I hope we can all find out someday.

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Karen Osborne

KAREN OSBORNE is a writer, visual storyteller and violinist. Her short fiction appears in Escape Pod, Robot Dinosaurs, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny and Fireside. She is a member of the DC/MD-based Homespun Ceilidh Band, emcees the Charm City Spec reading series, and once won a major event filmmaking award for taping a Klingon wedding. Her debut novel, Architects of Memory, is forthcoming in 2020 from Tor Books.

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